Władziu Valentino Liberace was a phenomenal success, his recording and performing career spanning four decades. A flamboyant showman and housewives’ favourite, Liberace fought long and hard to keep his homosexuality a secret until his death in 1987. Thus, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra (2013) arrives at in UK cinemas with a lot of baggage. Is it his last film? Did the topic of homosexuality really condemn the film to television in the US, where it will only be shown on HBO? How will Michael Douglas fare in a leading role which sets up so against type? And, the most important question of all – is it any good?
We meet Liberace through Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a bisexual young man with an unstable family background and ambitions to be a vet. In Liberace (Douglas), Scott finds a lover, a best friend and also a father figure. He takes up the role of the iconic pianist’s chauffeur, but also quickly becomes a model for Liberace to dress up and to alter into a younger version of himself. The bling is once more in the ring, and the costumes are a delight in themselves; and yet, Soderbergh and Douglas should both be congratulated on managing to achieve on almost perfect tone. There is great humour and wit throughout Behind the Candelabra, but at no point are we laughing at Lib and his unique lifestyle choices.
The inimitable Polish-Italian is a real character shown as self-aware of both his public persona and the delicate balancing act he needs to maintain in order to remain at the top of his profession. There is certainly campness on display here – tinsel-fringed buckets of it, in fact – but the film itself never indulges in the frivolities too deeply. As his relationship with the pianist transforms first Thorson’s life and then his physical appearance through a series of operations, we see them as a genuinely loving couple. However, things start to go wrong as Thorson’s addiction issues comes to the fore and Liberace’s eye begins to wander in search of the next young thing.
Soderbergh has once again assembled a brilliant ensemble cast for Behind the Candelabra, all of whom are almost unrecognisable in their respective roles: Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s lawyer; Scott Bakula as Thorson’s old lover; and Debbie Reynolds as Lib’s mother, Frances. Damon is quietly marvellous and utterly believable as the fresh-faced ingénue who, after the fun times get to fast, gradually disintegrates. But it’s undoubtedly Douglas who will get the accolades for a character portrait that eschews the temptations of pastiche to become moving amidst what Lib calls ‘the palatial kitsch’.
The 66th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 15-27 May, 2013. For more of our Cannes 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.